News - May 21, 2015

Column: Timewriting paradox

The conviction in his voice easily drowns out the whirr of the coffee machine. ‘It is ridiculous,’ he says. ‘I work 80 hours a week and then still have to account for my hours, but...’ – the senior researcher pauses for effect, ‘that’s impossible: all the projects are on the go all the time’. He growls. ‘As if I didn’t work long enough hours already.’ His colleagues nod understandingly. I do too.

Yet I don’t really understand. This man analyses the most complicated ecological processes and to do so he wants to measure practically everything. But keeping track of his hours? No, that’s too complicated. Scientists face a timewriting paradox: if it were possible they would measure everything on the planet, except how they spend their time.

As far as I am concerned, timewriting could be taken a lot further actually. Because my progress goes in fits and starts. Sometimes I work like mad all week and nothing happens. Absolutely nothing. And then suddenly, I take one stride after another. And I’m not the only one, you know. When the seniors have left the coffee machine I whisper hesitantly, ‘I’ve only typed five words today’. And it’s already four thirty.

I want to know why. Does working on in the evening increase productivity, for example? Is it bad to go home early? And if you need to pee, is it smart or dumb to postpone it? We could answer all these questions with an extensive timewriting experiment in which we meticulously register everything. But it must be a real experiment, complete with randomized knocking off early now and then.

Stijn van Gils (28) is doing doctoral research on ecosystem services in agriculture. Every month he describes his struggles with the scientific system.